Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Explosive Finale: Archer review


TELEVISION REVIEW

ARCHER: 'Double Trouble'

After two slightly disappointing episodes, Archer ends its second season on an almighty high, bringing together many of the best things about the series. If last week's 'White Nights' felt like one big set-up, 'Double Trouble' is the punchline it needed to justify itself. Archer returns from his renegade excursion to Moscow in love with the defecting Russian agent who saved his life. Naturally, Malory and Lana aren't too happy about this - for very different reasons - and set about trying to prove to Archer that his new fiancée is playing him. Meanwhile, having been dropped off a roof (again), the Russians are rebuilding ODIN agent Barry to bring back their lost agent.

Archer's relationship with the James Bond movies is clear in the conception of its lead character, who offers a pretty good impression of what a smug cock a man like Bond would be in something approaching a real life context, but rarely acknowledged directly. Last night's season finale tipped its hat several times to Bond though, notably in a story which combined the plots of From Russia With Love and On Her Majesty's Secret Service, then threw in Krieger's van, aka the 'SS Date Rape', and Barry as The Six Million Dollar Man for good measure.
 
Despite its keenly-felt Bond influences, it was more of an 'office' episode than a 'spy' one, which is always a good sign. There was a fair bit of action, such as the shoot-out at Archer's flat, but the drama revolved almost entirely around character rather than plot. That's one of Archer's biggest strengths and for a series which isn't serialised, there was an awful lot of continuity being thrown around. In fact, I'm not sure what you'd call Archer's approach to continuity - the major events, such as the cancer subplot, are often discarded without mention, yet small jokes and character notes get referenced and built upon time and time again. It's all sorts of glorious when some minor detail from way back gets recalled - in the same way that Breaking Bad brought back in its fourth season Walter White's boss from the car wash, who had only previously appeared in the pilot episode - but can be a bit frustrating when subplots which should be key, like Archer's quest for his real father, are forgotten about for long periods and only brought back to service the needs of a plot, aka to get Archer into Russia.

But I digress. Last night's episode was heavy on character, and therefore continuity as well. First off, there was the shock of Archer actually appearing ready to settle down with someone. She's exactly the type you can imagine a man like him finding hugely exciting - exaggerated in all the right places, superb skills as a spy and markswoman - and the fact that she's an enemy defector probably only adds to her allure. She's a living trophy for his ego, that Sterling Archer can make a woman defect through looks alone - the same ploy that SPECTRE, or SMERSH in the book, used on Bond in From Russia.

The episode wisely keeps up the tension for a while as to whether she really has crossed over: she's obviously not built to be a permanent character (she's basically Lana-lite, in all sorts of ways), so the savvy viewer - which is probably all of Archer's viewers - will naturally jump on the possibility of her still working for the Russians as a way for the episode to get rid of her at the end. It's therefore all the more surprising when it is revealed that her defection is genuine.

Her presence brings out the neuroses of several other characters. Archer falls for her even more when she makes a terrible first impression on his mother, Malory, who was primed to hate her from the start just because she was taking her son away, but was then given a reason to actively try to have her killed. Just as it's easy to see why someone like Archer would fall for Katya, Malory's venomous reactions to her are equally spot on. Being the control freak she is, Malory would want Katya dead just for having confused her for Archer's secretary. That she's also taking away the son whom Malory has spent so long making dependant on her is just the icing on the cake. Unfortunately for Malory, she also cares about her son, so hesitated when Archer stepped in front of her gun to protect his new bride.

Malory's desire, for much of the episode, to get Katya out of the way was mirrored by Lana, who has shown in the past that she still kind of cares about Archer despite his near-constant arseholery. She's particularly hung up on the fact that they had sex only a short time ago, although as Archer is quick to remind her, that was just 'cancer sex' and meaningless now that he's cured. (Which did make me wonder whether the cancer two-parter existed exclusively to set up their one night stand). As with Malory, Lana may suspect that Katya is a double agent, but she's motivated primarily by her own desire to keep Archer for herself, even though she may not want him, despite the fact that she clearly does. If that makes any sense at all. Women, eh?

Built around those character notes were a huge number of terrific gags, such as Barry's transformation into 'Sy Berg' and, as usual, everything involving Krieger. The van was a masterstroke, an hilarious comic device in its own right which was wrecked when Katya sacrificed herself to save Archer by pulling Barry off the roof. Unfortunately, Barry's cybernetic enhancements meant that he landed quite comfortably, while Katya lay dead atop the van. As Archer wept for his lost love, Krieger mourned his ruined vehicle, but only after deactivating the alarm in the return of one of the season's best gags, previously seen in 'Double Deuce', making for an inspired final gag. It was an ending which managed to be both genuinely tragic and hilarious, the culmination of a series of reveals and about-turns (Ray revealed himself to be a disgraced former minister, among his many other talents) which compounded the humour in typically ribald Archer fashion.

Whether there will be any long-lasting consequences of Archer losing his bride or Barry apparently being turned into a supervillain remain to be seen - on any other programme it would be a given, but as previously mentioned, Archer doesn't usually put much stock in keeping major storylines going beyond the occasional two-parter - but as a Bond geek, I'd love to see the next season open with a riff on Quantum Of Solace, where Bond goes after the people who killed the woman he loved - Bond's hunt for Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever is ridiculously underdeveloped, making Quantum a more potent target.

Either way, Archer managed in its second season to not only match the energy of its first, but develop it in new ways and bring new depths to its phenomenal cast of characters. It's one of the strongest contributors to what is a remarkable time for televised comedy - see also Parks & Rec, Community and 30 Rock - and returns in the US on September 15th with the gloriously titled 'Heart of Archness (Part One)'.

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